On 19 March, Iran signed a border security agreement with Iraq whereby the latter agreed to dismantle and relocate Kurdish separatists based in the Kurdistan region by a 19 September deadline. At the time, an image circulated of Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani standing behind a table where Iraqi National Security Advisor Qasim al-Araji and Iranian National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani sat to ink the pact between the two countries.
Tehran issued a brief statement, saying the agreement aimed to address security challenges along their common border. Simultaneously, a statement from Sudani’s office underscored “Iraq’s firm position of rejecting any violation of its sovereignty, and that Iraqi lands should not be a launching pad for attacking any of the neighboring countries.”
Fast forward five months to 28 August, when Iran’s Ministry Of Foreign Affairs disclosed that Tehran and Baghdad had “Signed an agreement under which Iraq committed to disarming separatist militants and terrorist groups present on its territory, closing their bases, and moving them to other places before September 19, 2023.”
Zero hour approaches
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani did not specify the locations to which the militants would be transferred, but warned that if the terms of the agreement are not upheld, Iran will fulfill its responsibility of “preserving our nation’s security.”
On the same day, Iraqi government spokesman Bassem al-Awadi announced that the two countries “signed an agreement to prevent the infiltration of militants, disarm them, hand over wanted persons, and remove camps,” stressing that one of the principles of Baghdad’s foreign policy is “that Iraq should not be a party to harming its neighbors.”
An Iraqi official source, who declined to be named, reveals to The Cradle some details of the agreement, outlining the plan to transfer Iranian-Kurdish separatist groups within Iraq to privately supervised camps, which will be under “direct supervision of Iraqi forces, supported by Peshmerga forces, who will work to prevent any attacks across the Iraqi-Iranian border.”
Additional anonymous sources say that these camps would be established deep in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), far from the Iraqi-Iranian border. The sources also reveal that a proposal to transfer Iranian-Kurdish factions to the west of the country faced opposition from Sunni politicians in the Anbar Governorate.
But former Secretary General of the Ministry of Peshmerga, Lieutenant General Jabbar Yawar, believes it unlikely that the Iraqi government will meet the deadline, less than a week away. He tells The Cradle:
“Security problems on the border go back more than 40 years. Despite Iraq’s seriousness, the solutions require several stages to be implemented.”
Dr. Ihsan al-Shammari, head of the Center for Political Thinking and former political advisor to ex-prime minister Haider al-Abadi, explains why the task of completely eliminating the Iranian-Kurdish militants or Iranian-designated terror groups like the Mojahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) is harder than it looks.
For starters, these Iranian opposition and secessionist groups have hidden allies in Iraq.
“In the event that these organizations are forced to leave Iraq, the central government (Baghdad) will be faced with opposition from the US administration and the ruling Kurdish forces in the region, as these organizations have undeclared relations with the politicians of the Kurdistan Region.”
Furthermore, Shammari warns that “members of the Iranian factions inside Iraqi territory are considered refugees and cannot be expelled.” Any such step, he explains, will encourage Turkey “to put pressure on Iraq to end the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) file in the same way.”
That is not necessarily the case, legally speaking. Habib Abdel, a France-based expert in international law, says that members of these organizations “cannot be considered refugees under international laws.”
“They did not acquire this status legally, and were embraced by Saddam Hussein’s regime for the purposes of using them against Iran.”
In any case, the Iraqi government announced on 12 September that it has begun relocating Kurdish factions away from the Iraqi border. This has been personally conveyed to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi by Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, who arrived in Tehran the following day.
Foreign militancy, long overlooked by Iraq
The origins of this issue trace back to 1979, following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the rise of organizations opposing the newly established Islamic Republic. Many of these groups sought refuge in northern Iraq, including prominent factions like the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), the Marxist leftist Kurdish Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, the Free Life Party (PJAK, the Iranian branch of PKK), and the nationalist Organization of the Iranian Kurdistan Struggle (Khabat). Most of these groups have, at some point, been armed and active on the Iraqi side of the border with Iran.
These organizations established their bases in areas north of Erbil and east of Sulaymaniyah, along the 1,460-kilometer Iraqi-Iranian border, which also includes approximately 550 kilometers of the border shared with the IKR. Over the last 40+ years, reports suggest that around 20,000 families of members affiliated with these Iranian armed organizations have settled along this border region.
Iraqi measures: mobilizing the military
On 23 November, 2022, the Ministerial National Security Council in Iraq convened, presided over by Prime Minister Sudani in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, to address the security situation along the Iraqi border.
The Council made several notable decisions: the redeployment of Iraqi border forces along the borders with Iran and Turkiye; providing logistical support to the border forces command; reinforcing border police stations under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior; and collaborating with the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Ministry of Peshmerga to safeguard Iraqi borders.
According to a security source, the part of the Iraqi-Iranian border located within the IKR is under the command of the First District of the Border Guard Forces, which consists of three brigades of 9,000 soldiers. In mid-July, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior announced the deployment of the 21st Brigade of Border Guard Forces on the Iraqi-Iranian border line in Sulaymaniyah Governorate.
The Ministry’s Director of Media Relations Major General Saad Maan has said that “50 concrete towers and 40 thermal cameras have been erected” at the border, and Iraq will begin to construct 47 border posts on the Iraqi-Iranian zero line.
In recent years, Iranian military forces have launched almost daily attacks with drones and surface-to-air missiles against “separatist terrorist groups that take the Iraqi Kurdistan region as their headquarters to destabilize security in Iran.”
The attack targets are very specific, and almost always target the headquarters of Kurdish militant groups.
The Iranian government includes these operations within the framework of “using its principled right to self-defense in accordance with international law” against groups that “exploit Iraqi territory to plan and carry out sabotage and terrorist acts in Iran,” as stated by the Iranian Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.
Iranian operations are often condemned by the IKR authorities, and sometimes by the central government in Baghdad. In September 2022, the US Military Command for the Middle East (CENTCOM) condemned in a statement “the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ unprovoked attack in Iraq’s Erbil Governorate this morning. Such indiscriminate attacks threaten innocent civilians and risk the hard-fought stability of the region.”
The spy wars
Last year, Iranian reports revealed that about 1,200 members of Iranian Kurdish factions set out from 50 bases across the border with the IKR towards Iranian territory, following protests over the death of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini while she was in police custody last September.
Iranian political researcher Hassan Hani tells The Cradle that those militants “were trained by officers from the Mossad and the CIA, and infiltrated Iranian territory to incite riots and carry out sabotage operations.”
Tehran has consistently accused Iranian Kurdish factions in Iraqi Kurdistan of engaging in “terrorist” activities in collusion with Israel and of fomenting anti-government protests. In recent years, Iranian authorities have repeatedly alleged that Tel Aviv is behind various terrorist acts, including the assassination of Iranian scientists and attempts to sabotage the country’s nuclear facilities.
In June 2022, well before the September protests broke out, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence revealed the arrest of a spy network “whose members communicated with Mossad officers through a neighboring country and entered Iran through the Iraqi Kurdistan region.”
Two weeks ago, on 31 August, Tehran announced the foiling of what it described as “one of the biggest attempts at sabotage” against the country’s military missile, aviation, and space industries, and accused Israel of being behind it.
The IRNA news agency quoted an official of the Ministry of Defense’s Information Protection Agency as saying: “The professional network, in cooperation with some hackers, planned to introduce defective parts into the production wheel of advanced missiles at the missile industries of the Ministry of Defense.” He accused the network of operating “under the direct direction of the Israeli Mossad.”
The Iranian nuclear program is the main target of Israel and the US, and the majority of the security violations that Iran has witnessed in recent years, such as the assassination of scientists and attempts to sabotage nuclear facilities, were in the context of concerted – often violent efforts – to prevent Iran from entering the elite club of nuclear-armed states.
Security vs. diplomacy
Despite Iran’s continued efforts to contain the Iranian Kurdish armed factions situated along its border with Iraq, many of these groups have persisted and even thrived, in part due to both overt and covert support from Iraqi Kurdish parties, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani.
As Iraqi political analyst Jassem al-Moussawi explains to The Cradle:
“The support of Iraqi Kurdish parties for Iranian organizations equates to American support for them as well. It’s widely understood that the authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq do not operate independently of American policy and directives.”
Moussawi points to a steady stream of information from local and international intelligence agencies, saying:
Reports “conclusively confirm the involvement of the Israeli Mossad in the attacks against Iran, and that the majority of these attacks are carried out across the Iranian border with the Kurdistan Region, and the use of Iranian Kurdish movements as a Trojan horse, every time Iran witnesses popular protests.”
Given the host of hidden parties who seek to disrupt this critical border area, the implementation of the Iranian-Iraqi agreement is expected to face formidable challenges. The Iraqi government will encounter internal (Kurdish) and external (US/Israeli) obstacles as it strives to resolve the issue of Iranian Kurdish factions within its territory and maintain mutually-beneficial relations with Iran.